Cheltenham Festival: Gemmell faces Yorkshire challenge

TWO Yorkshire runners will attempt to spoil the Cheltenham fairytale for Paisley Park and owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth.

Paisley Park lines up in today's Stayers' Hurdle for owner Andrew Gemmell who has been blind since birth.
Paisley Park lines up in today's Stayers' Hurdle for owner Andrew Gemmell who has been blind since birth.

Both the Jedd O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner and Phil Kirby’s Nautical Nitwit have outside claims in the Grade One Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle.

Sam Spinner, the mount of Middleham’s Joe Colliver, who has deferred a drink-drive court case to take the ride, was fifth last year.

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Meanwhile, Nautical Nitwit is another Grade One ride for Tommy Dowson, who was fourth on the Kirby-trained Lady Buttons earlier in the week.

Few in racing would begrudge Paisley Park winning the big race for trainer Emma Lavelle and Gemmell.

Now 66, he has become one of the personalities of the 2018-19 season thanks to the exploits of his special horse, who won at Haydock last November before landing the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.

A follow-up victory at Cheltenham under jockey Aidan Coleman – whose only previous Festival win came 10 years ago – confirmed Paisley Park as favourite for today’s three-mile test.

Gemmell’s interest in racing was sparked at an early age as he listened to radio commentaries of the sport’s great events. The humble transistor opened up the world to him.

He said: “I think of all sports, racing is great in that respect. You can get the commentary on the radio – or if you’re at the races it is on the tannoy – and that’s all I need.”

Gemmell enrolled in a ‘horse racing for the blind’ scheme as a child – but his need for speed meant he did not last long. “Basically I wanted the horses to go faster than the people in charge wanted them to – and ended up getting barred,” he said.

“You’d get led round by someone on the front rein, and they would only get the horse into a trot or canter.

“But I wanted to go faster, so I started booting hard and shouting, ‘gallop’. My guide went mad and told my mum she didn’t want me back.”

While boarding at the Royal National College for the Blind Gemmell would ask the maintenance man to place bets at a nearby betting shop – on occasions even sneaking out to do so himself.

He had already enjoyed plenty of success in racehorse ownership before Paisley Park came along, notably as part of the syndicate that owned Ed Dunlop’s 2015 Ascot Gold Cup hero Trip To Paris and which was ridden to victory by North Yorkshire jockey Graham Lee.

Gemmell, who settled on the name Paisley Park after the death of rock star Prince, gave up tickets to go to the Australian Open tennis to attend Cheltenham in late January where his horse win the Cleeve Hurdle.

His excitement, listening to the course commentary with friends as he stood in the paddock, has endeared him to the whole of racing and he is taking nothing for granted ahead of today’s defining race.

“I think what people sometimes forget is this horse was really ill two years ago. For him to come back and do what he’s done has been incredible,” he added.

“It’s very exciting. I know a lot of people are starting to talk about him as one of the bankers of the week, but I never look at it like that. He was a 25-1 non-runner no-bet for the Stayers’ before Ascot, so I had a bit on.”

Middleham trainer Ben Haslam saddles two runners at Cheltenham today for leading owner JP McManus. Bouvreuil lines up in the handicap chase and Squouateur runs in the finale, a steeplechase for amateur riders.